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The Benefits of Gratitude When You’re Living with a Chronic Illness

Living Well

January 25, 2021

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Yagazie Emezi/Getty Images

Yagazie Emezi/Getty Images

by Sydney Williams


Medically Reviewed by:

Debra Sullivan, Ph.D., MSN, R.N., CNE, COI


by Sydney Williams


Medically Reviewed by:

Debra Sullivan, Ph.D., MSN, R.N., CNE, COI


Shifting to an attitude of gratitude can be the difference between surviving and truly thriving.

My first dance with a gratitude practice came as a result from a Facebook post I saw back in 2010. A friend was posting something she was grateful for every day during November that year.

I jumped in on the challenge, and as I was thinking of the different things I was grateful for, I noticed that my mood improved, I felt more relaxed, and the little things that would usually annoy me throughout the day started to melt into the background.

What was happening here?

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How chronic illness deepened my gratitude practice

I had always considered myself a grateful person, but for years, my conscious acknowledgment of what I’m grateful for generally only happened around the Thanksgiving holiday.

Back in those days, the posts read like an Oscars acceptance speech:

“I’m thankful for my mentor, Aaron, who seemingly plucked me out of career mediocrity and provided me with the support I didn’t know I needed as I was graduating college and moving into Corporate America.”

“I’m thankful for my family, who has always encouraged me to go after my dreams.”

Between 2010 and 2014, 23 of my friends died. I was a competitive skydiver at the time, and my community was largely extreme sports athletes pushing the limits of what their bodies and equipment could handle.

Skydiving accidents, BASE jumps gone tragically wrong, a motorcycle accident, and four veteran suicides taught me the power of appreciating people in our lives while they’re here to hear our platitudes.

I told my friends, family, and colleagues early and often how much I loved them, how much they meant to me, and how much I treasured their presence in my life.

Across the board, my gratitude was outward-facing — an appreciation for the opportunities I had, things that had happened to me, or for people who had wandered into my life for a reason or a season.

It wasn’t until I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes that my gratitude turned inward.

Suddenly, I was thankful for a body that, while it wasn’t functioning optimally, was functioning overall.

Instead of berating my “broken pancreas” (a common trope in the diabetes community), I celebrated my strong, healthy lungs and legs that empowered me to climb the mountains — both literal and metaphorical — that were in front of me on my journey to manage this disease.

I found gratitude for my ability to be diagnosed because that meant I had access to healthcare. I was grateful for the ability to feed myself whole, healthy foods because that meant that I had enough money to afford the foods that would heal my body from the inside out.

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How to live gratefully

Kristi Nelson, executive director of the Network for Grateful Living and author of “Wake Up Grateful: The Transformative Practice of Taking Nothing for Granted” knows the power of gratitude and grateful living.

She was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer at 33 years old, and in the 27 years since, has lived into all that is possible when we take nothing for granted.

“Living gratefully is an inside job,” Nelson says. “Gratefulness is gratitude from the inside out, not waiting for circumstances to be grateful for.”

“We have to take stock of what is going right in our minds, in our bodies, and the world around us,” she says. “This goes against our cultural fixation on focusing on what’s broken.”

Research supports a long list of health benefits of gratitude, including better sleep quality, improved heart health, lower levels of depression in people living with chronic illness, and lower levels of hemoglobin A1C, a biomarker involved in blood sugar control that’s used to diagnose diabetes.

For so many people living with chronic illness, shifting to an attitude of gratitude can be the difference between surviving and truly thriving.

Whether you have been living with a chronic condition for years or you were recently diagnosed, life can feel like it just turned completely upside down in the wake of your diagnosis.

You might be asking yourself what you did to deserve this, why your body is betraying you, or a multitude of other questions that focus on what’s going wrong.

If focusing on what’s going wrong isn’t improving your life, here are some ways to start living gratefully and shift your focus to what is going right.

Ask yourself, what opportunity is begging for my attention?

“Wherever you are is a starting point,” says Nelson. “There is a deep trust required to see an opportunity. The more you see and seek opportunity, the more it reinforces trust.”

When I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, I didn’t interpret this diagnosis as my body betraying me, I saw that my body was trying to communicate that something was wrong.

Doing this allowed me to start to develop a relationship with my body, instead of seeing myself as separate from it.

With this new mindset, it wasn’t me versus my body — we were a team that lived together. As such, my diabetes management protocol didn’t feel like an invasive disruption to my life, it was an opportunity to slow down, prioritize my health, and do everything I could to care for my body.

Reframe everything

“The idea that our bodies are betraying us does no service to us,” Nelson says.

When you wake up in the morning and start thinking about the things on your to-do list, she suggests reframing tasks that seem like a burden into opportunities.

Instead of saying “I have to go to the doctor for more labs,” shift that language.

“I get to go to the doctor for more labs” acknowledges that you have access to healthcare, a doctor that is working to help you, and transportation to get to their office (even if that is your own two feet).

Focus on what’s working

Like I did when I was first diagnosed with diabetes and saw this diagnosis as an opportunity rather than a death sentence, make a list of everything that is working in your body.

Are you able to see? Can you hear? Can you move your body? Are you able to eat and digest food? Are you able to sleep at night?

In Nelson’s new book, there is a chapter called “Treasuring the Body As It Is.” When people ask you how you’re doing, Nelson encourages readers to respond with, “I’m not feeling great, but I’m grateful.”

“Ultimately, when we change our conversations about our lives, we change our lives,” she says.

The bottom line

While these tweaks alone won’t make everything better overnight, they can make living life with a chronic illness more bearable and provide a shift in perspective that can alleviate some of the stress we experience on a day-to-day basis.

Nelson reminds us, “as long as we’re here, we might as well focus on the fact that it is extraordinary to be alive.”

Article originally appeared on January 25, 2021 on Bezzy’s sister site, Healthline. Last medically reviewed on January 25, 2021.

Medically reviewed on January 25, 2021

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About the author

Sydney Williams

Sydney Williams is an adventure athlete and author based in San Diego, California. Her work explores how trauma manifests in our minds and bodies, and how the outdoors can help us heal. Sydney is the founder of Hiking My Feelings, a nonprofit organization on a mission to improve community health by creating opportunities for people to experience the healing power of nature. Join the Hiking My Feelings Family, and follow along on YouTube and Instagram.

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